hamlet essay

Submitted By hxcd
Words: 756
Pages: 4

John Dover Wilson once wrote a book entitled, What happens in Hamlet. Of course, nothing happens in Hamlet, as anyone who has read the play will know. The play is a study in Hamlet's hesitation, his inability to act, his inability to "force the moment to its crisis." Most of the significant action in the play takes place before the play begins, or takes place off stage (such as the suicide of Ophelia) or occurs in the final scene, when Hamlet avenges the death of his father. Perhaps the only occasion in the play when anything of any kind actually "happens" is when Hamlet kills Polonius, mistaking him for Claudius, yet even this occurs without preparation as an unpremeditated "act". At the time that Dover Wilson's influential book was first published in 1935, this fact was not lost on the critics. According to Dover Wilson himself, in his Preface to the second edition, there was a paper at a conference in America announced as, "Wings over Elsinore; or What Does NOT Happen in Hamlet" (Dover Wilson xi).
The fact that "nothing happens in Hamlet" brings the play close to the world of Samuel Beckett, to the "nothing to be done" syndrome of Waiting for Godot (1955). We could see Hamlet as a prelude to modern drama, where from the time of Ibsen, Shaw and Chekov, discourse has taken precedence over action. In Three Sisters (1901), for example, most of the action takes place off-stage, and what we experience as an audience is the characters' reflections on the action--we experience the action indirectly through the words of the characters. It is interesting that Chekov's first success in this mode was The Seagull (1896), a play which is more than a little indebted to Hamlet. Both Arkadina and Trepliov recite from Hamlet, and Chekov clearly intended drawing a parallel between their relationship and that of Gertrude and Hamlet. Trepliov jealously compares Trigorin to Hamlet and quotes Hamlet's lines to Nina: "Words, words, words" (Chekov 146).
I realize that this view of the play being "a play of inaction" has a great deal to do with the modern, eclectic text of the play, based on the First Folio and the Second Quarto, that if we refer to the First Quarto, we find a play in which the action flows more swiftly and where Hamlet is less given over to musing on his predicament. In the First Quarto, the placing of the "To be or not to be" soliloquy in Act 2 rather than in Act 3 is crucial in linking his reflections on his situation to the earlier stage of his depression rather than serving to interrupt the action at a later stage, yet the First Quarto has never found a level of general acceptance and is considered by many critics to be a corrupt version of the text prepared for the stage, rather than the text as it was actually intended by Shakespeare, hence we are left with the question of why Hamlet hesitates.2
Another influential critic of the play, T. S. Eliot,